6 Questions: One-on-One with Dr. Nick Koudas, CEO and co-founder, Sysomos

Understanding — and monetizing — the social media hype machine.

Machine learning, language processing systems — it’s all in a day’s work for some in the rarified air of computer research. But for Nick Koudas, 40, it’s also a potential springboard from obscure academia to high-profile commercial success. His 2-year-old, Toronto-based company, Sysomos (Greek for “everything together”), has so far developed two innovative analytical tools — MAP and Heartbeat — that help companies parse discussions taking place in social media channels. MAP, for example, can determine the tone of conversation to figure out how people feel about the products, services and ideas they’re discussing. It’s a potential gold mine for PR and marketing firms and, unsurprisingly, they have been among Sysomos’ first clients. Sysomos received $900,000 in funding from principal investor GrowthWorks’ Commercialization Fund, as well as funding from the Ontario government’s Investment Accelerator Fund, which provides up to $500,000 to recipients. The company currently has 11 employees. A computer hound since age 12, Koudas now also teaches computer science at the University of Toronto. Prior to joining UofT and launching Sysomos, he was principal researcher at AT&T Labs Research.

What is the greatest challenge currently facing Sysomos and what are you doing about it?
Technology is our strength. The key challenge is getting what is primarily a technology team to identify the good account management, sales as well as entrepreneurship talent in order to grow the team and move it forward. Our board, the people in our network, as well as the MaRS Centre, have been very helpful in that respect. They help find the right people and make introductions.

Who else — person or company — do you feel is doing innovative work and in what way?
In my particular field, Microsoft Research has been fairly innovative in certain areas, doing lots of cutting edge research. For example, intelligent displays, user interfaces, data management and theory. Yahoo is also doing some nice research work.

How would you describe your leadership approach/style?
By example. I always try to be around, get involved in everything. I always try to help people as opposed to dictate to people, and primarily that works because the team is very small. And my co-founder is also a very talented person and he’s taking care of the technical part of it right now so I can focus on the more managerial aspects.

There has been a lot of hype and activity around social media but its monetization from a business perspective has been considerably less intense. If there were to be a some kind of shakeout — like the dot com bubble of 2000-01 — happening in the social media space in the near to medium-term, what might cause it?
I believe that social media is going through its honeymoon period. There’s lots of activity, it’s new, and at the same time you have the media companies suffering so they’re trying to reinvent themselves. So all of that hype is a confluence of several parameters. At the same time that’s why we see lots of interest — even in this economy — of companies coming to us who are definitely curious because they think if they don’t do it they’ll be missing something. All of this is great and it’s definitely a good time to be in this business. But I’m pretty sure that pretty soon the question “Was it worth it?” is going to come up.

The companies that are best positioned to address the return on investment question in social media are the ones that are going to make a significant contribution in this field. I firmly believe and I strongly position Sysomos toward the direction of being the company to be able to answer the question to any company “What does the investment in social media mean for their business?”

Are we graduating enough technology professionals in Canada and putting enough money and attention behind it to prepare ourselves for a technology-based future?
In terms of graduating individuals, yes we do. I believe the government made a big investment almost 10 years ago in order to increase the number of professors as well as graduates in the technology sector. So that’s happening. What is not happening is the following trend — and I don’t see lots of people talking about it: Traditionally, China and India have sent their graduates here [to Canada and the U.S.] to be educated and do PhDs and at the same time they may decide to make this country their home. This trend is being reversed because China and India have so much growth and so much opportunity. So people basically don’t choose to leave the country. And in the long term, here in Canada and the States, that is going to backfire on us.

More should be done on our part to attract those talented young people here for their graduate degrees and hopefully — provided that they enjoy it and like it — decide to stay and create businesses. I’ve been around for a while so I’ve seen it from the point where we used to get lots of applications from very good schools in India and China, and over the last five to six years that is not happening any more. For the first time I see many of my friends and colleagues, and even students, choosing, once they graduate, to go back home immediately. Which is great for them, but if they chose to stay here they would create their businesses here. They would employ people here. But it’s happening less and less.

You’re a traveler. If you’re looking to travel but want to go somewhere or do something out of the ordinary, what do you recommend and why?
I usually prefer to travel off-the-beaten-track places, remote places. One good trip that I enjoyed — I wouldn’t recommend it right now because they have lots of political problems — is China’s Xinjiang Province in Urumqi (the capital) and Kashgar at the end of the Silk Route. It’s a very beautiful place to visit, close to the border of the Taklamakan Desert, which is close to the Pamir Plateau in Pakistan. I’m planning a trip in the winter to Lebanon and Syria and I’ve been discussing with friends for a long time about visiting all the –stans — Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan. I like to be in places where the scenery is nice, people are kind and simple, and interact with the culture.